Vanguard Theater’s ‘Lady Day’ Is Immersive, Emotional Evening with Billie Holiday

The Montclair production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill wonderfully balances the late jazz singer's playful and painful demeanor.

Tracey Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday in the Vanguard Theater Company's production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"
Tracey Conyer Lee channels Billie Holiday in the Vanguard Theater Company's production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Photo: Kyle Watkins for Vanguard Theater

You don’t need to travel to Philadelphia, or 1959, to enjoy a night of timeless jazz and blues at Emerson’s Bar and Grill: Just head to Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair.

For this off-Broadway production of 2014 Tony Award-winning musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, the Vanguard Theater is transformed into an intimate jazz club. Tracey Conyer Lee becomes the iconic Billie Holiday during one of the late singer’s final performances.

In the 90-minute show, running through December 17, Conyer Lee channels Holiday, also known as Lady Day, performing Holiday classics such as “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Baby Doll” and “Strange Fruit,” and telling stories about her life. The only other actor is Holiday’s pianist and love interest, Jimmy Powers. (The show also features a bass player, drummer and a little dog as Holiday’s pup, Pepi.) 

The Vanguard Theater is transformed into an intimate jazz club for its production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

The Vanguard Theater is transformed into an intimate jazz club through December 17. Photo: Courtesy of Emily Melvin

Wearing a glamorous white dress, long silk gloves and white flowers in her hair, Conyer Lee gives a breathtaking, intensely realistic performance. She’s played the role in multiple regional theaters across the country, and it’s clear that Holiday is in her blood. Her breathy vocals pay tribute to the jazz icon’s distinctive sound, and she wonderfully balances Holiday’s playful and painful demeanor. Her monologues follow Holiday’s heart-wrenching life stories of racism, sexism, grief, love, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, music-industry challenges and lost dreams.

Audience members are part of the set, sitting at round, red-clothed candlelit tables surrounded by brick walls decked with portraits of jazz and blues greats like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. For a further immersive experience, a soul-food meal catered by Vauxhall’s Mama’s Southern Style BBQ II is served and eaten at the table before the show, for $30. (There’s a $25 food-and-drink minimum purchase per person.)

Meal of fried chicken and fixings

Patrons can purchase dinner catered by Mama’s Southern Style BBQ II to enjoy before the show. Photo: Courtesy of Emily Melvin

The cozy set honors Holiday’s fondness for small clubs and aversion to the large venues where she was pushed to perform during her 30-year career. Emerson’s was one of her favorite clubs, despite being located in Philadelphia, where her conviction for drug possession led to the revocation of her cabaret card, limiting the number of venues at which she could perform.

Lady Day marks the start of Vanguard’s 2023-24 season. Janeece Freeman Clark, the company’s founder and artistic director, says it fits the season’s theme of “finding your place.”  

“Billie spent her whole life trying to find home,” says Freeman Clark. “She never had it when she was growing up, and spent much of her adult life trying to find a home with different men who were always, as she says in the play, ‘the worst apples of the bunch.’”   

Freeman Clark, a former Broadway actor who has performed with Conyer Lee, says that an actor’s familiarity with a story doesn’t necessarily make playing the role easier.  

“In some ways it’s more challenging, because you have to see the story [from a new] director’s vision,” Freeman Clark says. “At times that was a struggle for Tracey, because she did it recently [elsewhere], and [that] director’s vision was completely different [from mine].”

One of the most enjoyable parts of the Vanguard is the enthusiasm of its audiences. The 175-seat nonprofit theater has a devoted following of locals, and students in its theater-education program, who laugh, cry and cheer during performances. At a recent show, some women wore white flowers pinned in their hair in the style of Holiday. Many wiped tears from their eyes, passed tissues and reached out to each other.

Lady Day may immerse us in a story of hardship, but there’s comfort in her music and in sharing a story well-told.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December 17. Vanguard Theater, 180 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair. Tickets start at $25. $25 food and drink minimum per person. Recommended for ages 13+. 

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